The True George Washington: Farmer and Proprietor: Other Properties
Fortunately for the farmer, the Mount Vernon estate was but a small part of his property. His father had left him a plantation of two hundred and eighty acres on the Rappahannock, "one Moiety of my Land lying on Deep Run," three lots in Frederick "with all the houses and Appurtenances thereto belonging," and one quarter of the residuary estate. While surveying for Lord Fairfax in 1748, as part of his compensation Washington patented a tract of five hundred and fifty acres in Frederick County, which he always spoke of as "My Bull-skin plantation."
As a military bounty in the French and Indian War the governor of Virginia issued a proclamation granting Western lands to the soldiers, and under this Washington not merely secured fifteen thousand acres in his own right, but by buying the claims of some of his fellow officers doubled that quantity. A further tract was also obtained under the kindred proclamation of 1763, "5000 Acres of Land in my own right, & by purchase from Captn. Roots, Posey, & some other officers, I obtained rights to several thousand more." In 1786, after sales, he had over thirty thousand acres, which he then offered to sell at thirty thousand guineas, and in 1799, when still more had been sold, his inventory valued the holdings at nearly three hundred thousand dollars.
In addition, Washington was a partner in several great land speculations,—the Ohio Company, the Walpole Grant, the Mississippi Company, the Military Company of Adventures, and the Dismal Swamp Company; but all these ventures except the last collapsed at the beginning of the Revolution and proved valueless. His interest in the Dismal Swamp Company he held at the time of his death, and it was valued in the inventory at twenty thousand dollars.
The properties that came to him from his brother Lawrence and with his wife have already been described. It may be worth noting that with the widow of Lawrence there was a dispute over the will, but apparently it was never carried into the courts, and that owing to the great depreciation of paper money during the Revolution the Custis personal property was materially lessened, for "I am now receiving a shilling in the pound in discharge of Bonds which ought to have been paid me, & would have been realized before I left Virginia, but for my indulgences to the debtors," Washington wrote, and in 1778 he said, "by the comparitive worth of money, six or seven thousand pounds which I have in Bonds upon Interest is now reduced to as many hundreds because I can get no more for a thousand at this day than a hundred would have fetched when I left Virginia, Bonds, debts, Rents, &c. undergoing no change while the currency is depreciating in value and for ought I know may in a little time be totally sunk." Indeed, in 1781 he complained "that I have totally neglected all my private concerns, which are declining every day, and may, possibly, end in capital losses, if not absolute ruin, before I am at liberty to look after them."
In 1784 he became partner with George Clinton in some land purchases in the State of New York with the expectation of buying the "mineral springs at Saratoga; and ... the Oriskany tract, on which Fort Schuyler stands." In this they were disappointed, but six thousand acres in the Mohawk valley were obtained "amazingly cheap." Washington's share cost him, including interest, eighteen hundred and seventy-five pounds, and in 1793 two-thirds of the land had been sold for three thousand four hundred pounds, and in his inventory of 1799 Washington valued what he still held of the property at six thousand dollars.
In 1790, having inside information that the capital was to be removed from New York to Philadelphia, Washington tried to purchase a farm near that city, foreseeing a speedy rise in value. In this apparently he did not succeed. Later he purchased lots in the new Federal city, and built houses on two of them. He also had town lots in Williamsburg, Alexandria, Winchester, and Bath. In addition to all this property there were many smaller holdings. Much was sold or traded, yet when he died, besides his wife's real estate and the Mount Vernon property, he possessed fifty-one thousand three hundred and ninety-five acres, exclusive of town property. A contemporary said "that General Washington is, perhaps, the greatest landholder in America."
All these lands, except Mount Vernon, were, so far as possible, rented, but the net income was not large. Rent agents were employed to look after the tenants, but low rents, war, paper money, a shifting population, and Washington's dislike of lawsuits all tended to reduce the receipts, and the landlord did not get simple interest on his investments. Thus, in 1799 he complains of slow payments from tenants in Washington and Lafayette Counties (Pennsylvania). Instead of an expected six thousand dollars, due June 1, but seventeen hundred dollars were received.
Income, however, had not been his object in loading himself with such a vast property, as Washington believed that he was certain to become rich. "For proof of" the rise of land, he wrote in 1767, "only look to Frederick, [county] and see what fortunes were made by the ... first taking up of those lands. Nay, how the greatest estates we have in this colony were made. Was it not by taking up and purchasing at very low rates the rich back lands, which were thought nothing of in those days, but are now the most valuable land we possess?"
In this he was correct, but in the mean time he was more or less land-poor. To a friend in 1763 he wrote that the stocking and repairing of his plantations "and other matters ... swallowed up before I well knew where I was, all the moneys I got by marriage, nay more, brought me in debt" In 1775, replying to a request for a loan, he declared that "so far am I from having £200 to lend ... I would gladly borrow that sum myself for a few months." When offered land adjoining Mount Vernon for three thousand pounds in 1778, he could only reply that it was "a sum I have little chance, if I had inclination, to pay; & therefore would not engage it, as I am resolved not to incumber myself with Debt." In 1782, to secure a much desired tract he was forced to borrow two thousand pounds York currency at the rate of seven per cent.
In 1788, "the total loss of my crop last year by the drought" "with necessary demands for cash" "have caused me much perplexity and given me more uneasiness than I ever experienced before from want of money," and a year later, just before setting out to be inaugurated, he tried to borrow five hundred pounds "to discharge what I owe" and to pay the expenses of the journey to New York, but was "unable to obtain more than half of it, (though it was not much I required), and this at an advanced interest with other rigid conditions," though at this time "could I get in one fourth part of what is due me on Bonds" "without the intervention of suits" there would have been ample funds. In 1795 the President said, "my friends entertain a very erroneous idea of my particular resources, when they set me down for a money lender, or one who (now) has a command of it. You may believe me when I assert that the bonds which were due to me before the Revolution, were discharged during the progress of it—with a few exceptions in depreciated paper (in some instances as low as a shilling in the pound). That such has been the management of the Estate, for many years past, especially since my absence from home, now six years, as scarcely to support itself. That my public allowance (whatever the world may think of it) is inadequate to the expence of living in this City; to such an extravagant height has the necessaries as well as the conveniences of life arisen. And, moreover that to keep myself out of debt; I have found it expedient now and then to sell Lands, or something else to effect this purpose."
As these extensive land ventures bespoke a national characteristic, so a liking for other forms of speculation was innate in the great American. During the Revolution he tried to secure an interest in a privateer. One of his favorite flyers was chances in lotteries and raffles, which, if now found only in association with church fairs, were then not merely respectable, but even fashionable. In 1760 five pounds and ten shillings were invested in one lottery. Five pounds purchased five tickets in Strother's lottery in 1763. Three years later six pounds were risked in the York lottery and produced prizes to the extent of sixteen pounds. Fifty pounds were put into Colonel Byrd's lottery in 1769, and drew a half-acre lot in the town of Manchester, but out of this Washington was defrauded. In 1791 John Potts was paid four pounds and four shillings "in part for 20 Lottery tickets in the Alexa. street Lottery at 6/ each, 14 Dollrs. the Bal. was discharged by 2.3 Lotr prizes." Twenty tickets of Peregrine and Fitzhugh's lottery cost one hundred and eighty-eight dollars in 1794. And these are but samples of innumerable instances. So, too, in raffles, the entries are constant,—"for glasses 20/," "for a Necklace £1.," "by profit & loss in two chances in raffling for Encyclopadia Britannica, which I did not win £1.4," two tickets were taken in the raffle of Mrs. Dawson's coach, as were chances for a pair of silver buckles, for a watch, and for a gun; such and many others were smaller ventures Washington took.
There were other sources of income or loss besides. Before the Revolution he had a good sized holding of Bank of England stock, and an annuity in the funds, besides considerable property on bond, the larger part of which, as already noted, was liquidated in depreciated paper money. This paper money was for the most part put into United States securities, and eventually the "at least £10,000 Virginia money" proved to be worth six thousand two hundred and forty-six dollars in government six per cents and three per cents. A great believer in the Potomac Canal Company, Washington invested twenty-four hundred pounds sterling in the stock, which produced no income, and in time showed a heavy shrinkage. Another and smaller loss was an investment in the James River Canal Company. Stock holdings in the Bank of Columbia and in the Bank of Alexandria proved profitable investments.
None the less Washington was a successful businessman. Though his property rarely produced a net income, and though he served the public with practically no profit (except as regards bounty lands), and thus was compelled frequently to dip into his capital to pay current expenses, yet, from being a surveyor only too glad to earn a doubloon (seven dollars and forty cents) a day, he grew steadily in wealth, and when he died his property, exclusive of his wife's and the Mount Vernon estate, was valued at five hundred and thirty thousand dollars. This made him one of the wealthiest Americans of his time, and it is to be questioned if a fortune was ever more honestly acquired or more thoroughly deserved.